Thursday, October 31, 2013

Federal Complaint Spurs Change for Non-English Speakers in Oakland Schools

By Doug Oakley
Staff Writer
Bay Area News Group
OAKLAND -- A Vietnamese-speaking parent whose high school-age son was suspended, expelled and denied evaluation for special education because his school didn't provide adequate interpretation or translation services has won new rules requiring the services as part of a civil-rights complaint brought in 2009. 

Without any debate or discussion, the school board last month approved a sweeping new written policy assuring translation and interpretation services for those who don't understand English. 

The new policy comes four years after the school district signed an agreement with the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights to resolve the problem. As part of the agreement, the district was supposed to have the new policy ready by Nov. 1, 2009. 

"Four years is too long, obviously, and there is no good explanation for that," said school district spokesman Troy Flint. "We were in constant contact with the Office for Civil Rights. It's not something we forgot about." 

Up until now, the school district had no written guidelines for providing interpretation or translation services. And the Oakland school board never discussed the investigation and complaint in any open session. 

The civil rights complaint was brought by the parent in 2008 who tried to get help for his son who was failing academically and was eventually expelled for bad behavior from his school partly because neither the parent nor the son understood enough English to get help, the investigation found. 

About a third of the Oakland Unified School District's 36,000 students are English learners. 

In its investigation, the Office for Civil Rights "concluded that as a result of the inconsistent availability of interpreters for oral communications and the consistent failure to translate written communications, the student's parents were denied equal access to information from the school and an equal opportunity to participate in their son's education." 

The Office for Civil Rights made available to this newspaper a copy of the investigation letter and resolution agreement but redacted the name of the boy's school, the two assistant principals at his school and the name of the student and the father. The office declined to comment on the case. 

Flint said the investigation and complaint were the result of a failure at the high school the boy attended and not a reflection of the school district as a whole. 

"The district has always exceeded its legal requirements in terms of translation," Flint said. "The biggest difference now is there is more emphasis on translating documents for families where only a small number speak the language." 

According to the investigation, the father who brought the complaint to the Office for Civil Rights initially tried to communicate with two assistant principals at a high school about his son's failing grades and behavior problems. 

In 2007, the father went to the school several times to try to get help, but there often was no Vietnamese-speaking interpreter available, the investigation found. He received several progress reports and disciplinary notices for his son, but they were all in English, so he went to an outside legal aid agency to have them translated. 

Requests to meet with the student's counselor and one of the assistant principals about his son's discipline problems and possible placement in special education were denied because no interpreters were available, the complaint said. 

"A 2007 meeting between the student's parents and his teachers was canceled because of the absence of an interpreter, and not rescheduled before the student was suspended from the school pending expulsion in early February," the investigation said. 

The father's legal aid representative also e-mailed one of the assistant principals to discuss mental health counseling and special education placement, but the principal didn't respond, the complaint said. 

The sweeping new policy approved last month bans, except in an emergency, the district's use of students to interpret or translate for parents or other students because they may not be trained in the ethics of the practice and may not understand confidentiality issues. 

It also requires school principals to get documents relating to field trips, school activities, testing, safety and "all notices, documents, statements or records" translated for those who don't speak English. It requires interpretation services for those requesting it two weeks in advance at school board meetings, parent information meetings, disciplinary hearings, meetings for individual education plans and all communications for placement of students in special education. 

In addition, the agreement requires the district to develop a list of bilingual employees who have undergone training for interpretation and develop a list of outside contractors who can come in to interpret. 

"It's clear we have to make an even stronger effort to reach out to those parents who don't speak the major languages," Flint said. 

Contact Doug Oakley at 925-234-1699. Follow him on Twitte at

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